On the Power of Negative Thinking
by Gary Smalley & Greg Smalley, Psy.D.
Marital experts have long noticed a particular pattern within relationships
that has an extremely devastating impact. They have observed that the
assumptions we make about our spouse and our relationship can determine the
level of happiness we experience within our marriage. Several experts have gone
as far as to say that a main reason why couples divorce involves when they
consistently experience negative thoughts about their mate. My wife, Erin, and I
(Greg) discovered how destructive it is when we develop negative thoughts about
One evening, Erin was explaining how to use an alternate alarm code to our
house sitter. I was sitting watching a basketball game when Erin asked me for
the correct code. After several failed attempts to gain my attention, she yelled
out, "I'm tired of you not listening to me! It's been this way for the weeks!
What's wrong with you?" For someone who was getting his doctorate is counseling,
it's not a good sign when your mate accuses you of not listening. Naturally, I
did what any mature person would do in that situation, I ignored her. Erin let
out one last gasp of disapproval, did her best to explain the code to our house
sitter, and headed upstairs for bed.
Watching her storm off, I was convinced that I needed to reconcile or spend
the night on the couch. In the middle of my weak attempt at an apology, the
phone rang. "Way to go," Erin said in a sarcastic voice as she ran downstairs,
"the police are here." Without realizing the seriousness of the situation,
several minutes passed before I sought an explanation. When I reached the living
room, the front door was open and Erin had disappeared. As I walked out, I was
shocked to see two police officers with their guns drawn!
Like a deer
frozen by headlights, I didn't move until I was ordered away from the house.
When I finally found Erin, it wasn't the emotional reunion I expected. "This is
all your fault," Erin hissed. "You wouldn't listen or help me so I entered the
wrong code. I triggered the silent alarm!" As the officers rolled their eyes, I
quickly responded, "She pushed the code…it's her fault…she's the bad
As our argument escalated, one of the officers interceded. "I don't
mean to interrupt," he said to me, "But is anyone inside the house who might
harm you besides your wife?" I was in big trouble.
What happened to Erin and Greg is the same kind of thing that some one once
wrote about: "Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of
them." This quote reveals an issue that is reeking havoc within our marriages
today. In the same way, the Scriptures have spoken about the importance of our
thinking or what we set our minds on:
u "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth."
u "For those who are according to the flesh set their minds
on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the
things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set
on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile
toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even
able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God." (Romans
What Is Negative Thinking?
You might be thinking that Greg and Erin's experience sounds like plain old
marital conflict, what does it have to do with negative thinking? What happened
to Erin and Greg is the same kind of thing that is taking place in millions of
homes round the world. When two people get frustrated with the other, but the
issue is not dealt with, then the tendency is for each person to develop his or
her own conclusion about why the problem is happening. We call this negative
mind reading. For example, Erin's frustration that Greg wasn't listening to her
had been building for weeks. Without talking about the issue, she formulated her
own conclusions about why Greg was doing this. Perhaps she started to believe
that Greg wasn't interested in her. This is where destructive negative thinking
can penetrate the relationship.
Negative thinking is when a spouse consistently believes that the motives of
the other are more negative than is really the case. In other words, a husband
or wife interprets the behavior of his or her spouse to be much more negative
than the spouse intended. Basically, it's the belief that your mate is trying to
ruin or weaken the marriage on purpose. Negative thinking is powerful because
how a mate perceives and interprets what the other does can be far more
important in determining marital satisfaction than those actions themselves.
During courtship and early married life, almost everything the mate says or
does is interpreted in a positive light. He or she can do no wrong. Even
unpleasant behavior can be turned around and made positive. This produces a
"perfect" image of the loved one that emphasizes the appealing features and
conceals the undesirable one. In a sense, it's like one mate views the other
with a pair of rose tinted glasses-everything is perfect.
But if the marriage runs into trouble, the repeated disappointments,
arguments, and frustrations lead to a change in perspective. For example, a wife
may shift from a "rose-colored" perspective to a negative one. Her attitude
changes from one of admiration to faultfinding. Then, much of what of what he
does is interpreted in a negative light. He can do no right. In essence, when
the relationship runs into persistent problems, we have a tendency to switch
"lenses" and see our mate differently-more negatively.
Why Negative Thinking is Destructive in a Relationship
1. Confirmation Bias. The major problem with negative thinking is that what
humans believe about another, they tend to see and hear even if it isn't true.
In other words, what you believe about another person (positive or negative),
you will find evidence of that belief in everything he or she says or does. When
Erin started to believe that Greg wasn't interested in her, most every thing he
did could be viewed to support her negative thinking. If he was focused on
something else or deep in thought, she could see that as evidence that he wasn't
interested in her. Romans 14:14: "…but to him who thinks anything to be unclean,
to him it is unclean."
2. Self-fulfilling Prophecy. After someone begins to look for or notice
behaviors that support their beliefs, this often influences how they act toward
their mate. In other words, we have a tendency to treat others in accordance to
how we think or believe about them. As a result, our mate's usually behave in a
way consistent with our original expectation. People tend to live up or down to
our beliefs about them. When Erin expected Greg not to be interested in her, she
yelled at him for not listening to her. Greg then got hurt and ignored
Erin-thus, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
3. Learned Hopelessness. When negative thinking consistently invades the
relationship, it produces an environment of hopelessness and demoralization. The
negatively framed mate is robed of motivation and action.
How To Fight Negative Thinking
We are not advocating some kind of unrealistic "Pollyanna" thinking. We
cannot sit around wishing or hoping that our mate will change truly negative
behaviors. However, we need to consider that our mate's motives are more
positive than we are willing to acknowledge.mAs we learn to fight negative
thinking, we have found four steps that can be helpful.
Step 1: "I Could Be Wrong." Paul encourages Christians to be mature in their
thinking: "Brethern, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes,
but in your thinking be mature." (I Corinthians 14:20) Mature thinking involves
realizing that we can never be 100% accurate in how we interpret our mate's
thoughts, words, or behavior. Even if we are 99% sure, there is always a 1%
chance we are wrong. Thus, we must adopt a more humble, tentative attitude about
the accuracy of our mind reading, and its resulting negative conclusions. We
must ask ourselves if we might be being overly negative in our interpretation of
our mate's actions. Or we might have misunderstandings stemming from differences
in their perspectives-and is not the result of some negative trait of our
Step 2: Substitute More Reasonable Responses for the Negative Thought. Once
we allow for the possibility that we could be wrong in our mind reading, it
allows us to consider other possible conclusions. For example, there are times
when Erin will say to me (Greg), "I need to talk about something." Instantly, my
first thought is usually, "I've done something wrong and I'm in trouble." I
start to feel anxious and frustrated. I think, "I'm not the only one who does
wrong around there. You've done…" And I start to think through every little
irritation or wrongdoing that Erin is guilty of. Suddenly, my negative thoughts
are racing out of control and I'm ready for a fight. However, had I'd been able
to initially consider other possible conclusion to Erin's "we need to talk"
statement, then I wouldn't get so emotionally flooded and negative. I could also
considered that she wants to talk about something that I've done positive. Or I
might have thought that even if Erin is upset, it will last for only a short
time. Finally, I could think to myself that even if I did something to upset
her, I do plenty of positive things as well. Considering other options allows me
to take the third step.
Step 3: Check Out the Accuracy of Your Negative Thinking. Once we consider
alternative explanations for what our mate does-since we still don't know the
truth-we need to ask. It's here that we must either ask our mate directly or
make further observations of their actions. The bottom line is that extremely
important to give them the opportunity to correct any misinterpretations,
misconceptions, or miscommunications. This is what will correct any short-term
negative beliefs we begin to formulate. The key, however, to dealing with
negative thinking on a long-term basis found in the next step.
Step 4: Keeping Track of Positive Behavior. It's important for couples to be
aware of what their mate's do that is positive and to respond accordingly. A
mate may already be doing some positive things, but you may not be totally aware
of them. For a start, try to notice methodically what your mate already does
that pleases you. In order to note pleasing actions, spouses begin to really
look at each other. This will force you to break through the barriers that
obstruct your vision of your mate's good deeds. The apostle Paul recognized the
importance of this when he wrote: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever
is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever
is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise,
let your mind dwell on these things." (Philippians 4:8).
One of the best ways to care for your most important relationships is to
guard them from becoming infected by negative thinking. As you adopt more humble
and tentative attitudes about your mate's behaviors, consider other more
positive reasons, check out the accuracy by asking, and keep track of positive
behavior, you will be erecting a solid foundation of protection around your
© 2003 Smally Online. Used by permission.